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June 17, 2016

Talking Tactics: Loss of Vincent Nogueira is a devastating blow for the Union

Soccer Union
061716_UnionVince_PSP Daniel Gajdamowicz/Philly Soccer Page

The departure of Vincent Nogueira leaves a gaping hole in the Union midfield" (Daniel Gajdamowicz/Philly Soccer Page)

It’s not a stretch to say that Vincent Nogueira was among the most underappreciated players in the modern era of Major League Soccer.

The diminutive Frenchman was a brilliant box-to-box ball mover and a prototypical number eight with the best chop turn and pirouette in North America. He was a tempo-setter for the Philadelphia Union and often improved those around him when he was on his game.

Around the league, people knew who he was, but didn’t necessarily discuss him or write about him. Nogueira wasn’t a goal scorer and didn’t rack up assists. There weren’t a lot of quantifiable statistics to attach to his performances, and that’s the difficult part of trying to explain a player’s value to an American audience.

It also doesn’t help that the Union weren’t very good in 2014 or 2015, and you wonder if two of his best years may have been wasted in Philadelphia. But even when the team struggled, Nogueira generally passed the “eye test”. He proved that he belonged on this improved squad and looked to be building something special with his more talented midfield partners.

It’s a shame we won’t get to see more of that.

Nogueira’s departure from the Union for “personal health reasons” is private, and we’ll leave it at that. The timing, however, could not be worse, as the Union look to stay atop the eastern conference standings without one of their most important players.

But Jim Curtin does have options:

Scenario 1: Straight swaps and defensive double pivots

Nogueira did not play every game this season due a couple of minor injuries.

In those cases, the Union did not stray from the 4-2-3-1 shape and simply plugged the gap with Warren Creavalle.

Creavalle is technically the next man up on the depth chart, but he changes the flow of the team when he plays at the eight because he’s more of a prototypical defensive midfielder and not a “shuttler.” When Creavalle is on the field, the Union have more defensive bite and become harder to break down, but they lose Nogueira’s ability to dictate from deep-lying areas, split opposing lines, and start counterattacks with smart outlet passes.

You’ve seen in recent weeks that the Union do not give up much when playing with the Carroll and Creavalle double pivot. It’s a design that earned points at Orlando and Colorado during that vicious road trip. It allows Creavalle to press higher up the field and disrupt the opposition in positive positions, but it also asks a lot of both players, and you wonder how many minutes the 34-year-old Carroll can handle.

The best case scenario is that Maurice Edu is back on the field soon, but I still think he’s more than a month from getting into the starting lineup.

Scenario 2: Inverting the midfield triangle

In recent weeks, Curtin has talked about the idea of getting another attack minded player on the field. This is generally the response to questions we’ve asked about Roland Alberg’s place on the team.

Let’s be clear – Alberg is not a natural number eight and the coaching staff does not see that as his best position on the field. Alberg does not have the defensive skill-set and work rate of Nogueira and is preferred at the ten spot on the depth chart, which is currently locked down by Tranquillo Barnetta.

One way you can tweak the formation is to take that midfield triangle and simply turn it upside-down.

Instead of two defensive midfielders sitting behind a CAM, you would instead replace Carroll with Alberg, and deploy a sort of 4-1-4-1 that would look something like this:

The obvious flaw in this design is that much more will be asked of Creavalle in defense. But the addition of another attack-minded player gives C.J. Sapong a bit more support and adds some firepower in the final third.

Scenario 3: abandoning the shape completely

One of the few knocks on Nogueira’s game is that his skill-set is diminished outside of a three-man midfield. He’s not a number ten and he’s not a number six. He did play some wide midfield at Sochaux, but that’s not his best position on the field. He can definitely play in a 4-4-2, but requires a stout defensive partner to make that effective, since he’s not a beefy ball-winner.

So, theoretically, the Union could stray from the three-man midfield and try something different. They could roll with a 4-4-2. They could play an “empty bucket” 4-2-2-2, with Carroll and Creavalle sitting behind a largely vacated zone 14 with two strikers on the field. We saw this at the start of 2011, when Peter Nowak found a way to play two forwards with two defensive midfielders in an offensively hamstrung, yet effective shape.

For example, you could try something like this diamond, which asks more of Barnetta in defense but gets a second striker onto the field.

I don’t think something like the above is the best choice for this team, but it’s just another way to switch things up and get away from asking Brian Carroll to start every single game.

Scenario 4: spot starters and emergency duties

If Edu was healthy, all of this would be a whole lot easier.

You could play Edu at either the six or the eight, because he’s a guy with athleticism and the ability to cover space while still getting forward on occasion. Mo does tend to wander at times, so maybe the best idea is to try Edu at the eight and Creavalle at the six.

But what if somebody else goes down injured? What if the midfield is just gassed?

Ken Tribbett played in the defensive midfield at Drexel, so he’s certainly an option there. Keegan Rosenberry also has experience in that spot and Josh Yaro definitely has the skill and passing ability to be a six.

It’s not ideal to convert any of those three players, especially since they’re performing well at their natural spots. We’ve seen enough of these Amobi Okugo and Aaron Wheeler-styled “conversions” to last a lifetime. But if it really comes down to it, the Union are covered in an emergency.

The questions about the shape and tactics are easy enough to navigate, and provide a rather linear path for problem solving.

The real issue is replacing a guy who can do things like this: